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Difference Between a Water Conditioner vs Water Softener

It’s a common dilemma for homeowners—choosing between a water conditioner and a water softener. What’s the difference between these two, and how do you know which one is right for you?

Understanding Water Conditioning and Water Softening

Water softeners are designed to tackle the problem of hard water. They remove minerals like calcium and magnesium, which are the main culprits behind water hardness.

Water conditioners are more like multitaskers. They help reduce hardness but also tackle other issues like chlorine, sediment, and unpleasant odors. This makes them a more versatile option.

Both systems use various methods to achieve these results, and understanding these different technologies will help you make an informed decision about which system is best for you.

Whether it’s cleaner dishes with a softener or tastier drinking water with a conditioner, getting to grips with these options is the first step to better water at home.

Why Choose to Soften or Condition Your Water Supply?

You may have heard of hard water, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. Water is considered hard if it contains a high level of dissolved minerals. These hard water minerals, in the form of ions, usually consist of calcium and magnesium ions that your water has picked up over time as it percolates through the ground.

Water hardness can have a big impact on your home, body, or business. The most common impact of hard water is the mineral deposits left behind on surfaces that have come into contact with hard water. These mineral deposits are known as scaling.

If you have hard water in your home, take a look at the fixtures in your bathroom or surfaces such as your shower doors. You’ll most likely find scale buildup, which is a stubborn mineral buildup that looks whitish in color.

Surfaces in your bathroom and kitchen aren’t the only place where scale builds up. Scale builds up on the inside walls of plumbing over time. Scale affects appliances that heat water, such as your dishwasher or water heater. Eventually, the buildup reduces the efficiency of these appliances and shortens their lifespan.

Some people choose to soften their tap water because they don’t like the effects of hard water on their bodies. The mineral deposits left behind by hard water are often found on your hair and skin.

These mineral deposits will rob hair of its natural shine and volume, while also causing it to become more brittle. At the same time, mineral deposits left behind on your skin can dry it out.

The most effective way to deal with these problems is to use a house water softener.

While water softeners are used to remove hard minerals from water, water conditioners are typically used to remove chemicals and substances that give your water an unpleasant taste or smell. In addition, some water conditioners offer soft water benefits, while hybrid systems combine both treatment processes into the same system.

But how do you choose between a water conditioner vs water softener? Both of these systems are usually installed where your water line comes into your house so that they provide softened or conditioned water for your whole house.

Let’s take a look at how each water filtration system works so that you can better understand whether a water softener vs conditioner is right for you.

Water Softeners

Water softening systems are the most common method to deal with hard water in both a residential and commercial setting. Water softeners use a process known as ion exchange, or reverse osmosis, to soften water.

At a functional level, ion exchange systems remove dissolved mineral ions from hard water and replace them with sodium ions.

Most water softening systems consist of two tanks. The primary tank contains special resin beads that have been coated with sodium ions. A second tank contains a salty brine solution which is used to regenerate the resin in the primary tank.

As water moves through the soil it picks up mineral ions. These mineral ions become bound to the water molecule. To break this bond, ion-exchange units attract these mineral ions away from the water molecule.

As the water supply enters the primary tank in the water softening system, the mineral ions are attracted to the resin beads. As they attach to the resin beads, they displace the sodium ions. The sodium ions bond to the water molecules, allowing them to maintain a balanced charge.

Over time the resin beads will collect so many dissolved minerals the system can’t continue removing more. Because of this, the system must occasionally be regenerated. To regenerate the system, salty water from the brine tank is used to fill the resin tank.

This water displaces the mineral ions on the resin beads, replacing them once again with sodium ions. Afterward, any remaining water in the tank is flushed out of the system through a drain line.

Softening water through ion exchange is a time-tested method for eliminating hard water. They are great for providing large amounts of consistent, softened water. Like most filtration systems, ion exchange systems do require a degree of maintenance. The regeneration process must occur regularly, and the owner must add salt to replenish the brine tank periodically.

Water Conditioners

Most water conditioners are salt-free systems that are used to remove unwanted substances that alter the taste or smell of your water. These substances include chlorine, chloramines, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and organic gasses. Water conditioners are also used to remove lead from water.

How does a water conditioner work? It depends on what type of water conditioner you have.

Some water conditioners filter out unwanted substances from water as it passes through, giving your water a better smell. Other water conditioners offer some soft water benefits by actually altering the structure of minerals in the water.

These systems rely on a specialized material known as template-assisted crystallization (TAC) media to provide the benefits of soft water around your home.

As hardened water passes over the TAC media, small amounts of hard minerals react with the TAC media and combine to form into crystals about the size of a nanometer. This process is known as nucleation. The crystals formed during this process are sometimes referred to as “seed crystals”.

Once these nanometer-sized crystals have formed on the TAC media they rejoin the stream of water. Not all of the hard mineral ions in the water have formed into crystals.

However, these seed crystals are sufficient to eliminate scaling. This is because the remaining hardness ions contained in the water will prefer to bind to the seed crystals over other surfaces such as the lining of your plumbing or your bathroom fixtures.

Water conditioners using TAC media are highly effective at reducing scaling from hard water. Research conducted by the WaterReuse Research Foundation found TAC media reduced scaling by up to 88%.

At the same time, water conditioners like our Spartan series that use TAC media don’t require external power to operate. This results in lower utility costs when compared to other hard water treatment options.

The best water conditioner for you will depend on how you want to treat your water. If you are concerned about exposure to chlorine or lead, a water conditioner like the Rayne Executive Series is probably right for you.

However, if you also want the benefits of softened water you may want to consider a water conditioner that uses TAC media or a hybrid system that combines both water softening and conditioning.

Curious about how long water conditioners take to work? Water conditioning occurs quickly, so you don’t have to worry about the flow rate being affected or having to wait for conditioned water.

If you are wondering about an electronic water conditioner and if they work, there hasn’t been conclusive evidence one way or the other that electronic or magnetic conditioners are as effective at removing scaling.

Key Differences in Function and Mechanism

When it comes to managing hard water in your home, understanding the functional and mechanical differences between water softeners and water conditioners is key.

Here’s a breakdown of how each system works and what it means for your water quality.

Mechanism of Action: How They Treat Hard Water

  • Water Softeners: These systems remove minerals like calcium and magnesium and replace them with sodium. This is done through a process known as ion exchange, which effectively reduces water hardness. This switch can help prevent scale buildup in your pipes and make soaps and detergents more effective.
  • Water Conditioners: Unlike softeners, conditioners don’t remove minerals from the water. Instead, they use methods like template-assisted crystallization or electromagnetic waves to change the structure of the minerals. This prevents them from forming scale on your fixtures and appliances without stripping the water of beneficial minerals.

Impact on Water Composition and Quality

  • Water Softeners: By swapping calcium and magnesium for sodium, softeners slightly increase the sodium content in your water. This is something to consider if you’re on a sodium-restricted diet, although the increase is generally minimal.
  • Water Conditioners: These systems maintain the original mineral content of the water, which means the essential minerals your body needs are still present. They offer a way to manage hard water without altering its natural composition.

Which Water Solution Suits Your Needs?

Choosing between a water conditioner and a water softener depends on your needs. Water softeners remove minerals to tackle hard water, while conditioners address a wider range of issues like chlorine and odors. Many times, homeowners will get both systems to tackle a full range of water treatment issues.  Understanding their differences helps you choose the best solution for your home’s water quality.

Rayne has delivered top-notch water softener & drinking system solutions since 1928. Our water softening systems tackle hard water and start saving you money from day one. Get started with us today!


  5. Vastyan, John. 2010. “Template-Assisted Crystallization.” Heating/Piping/Air Conditioning Engineering 82 (11): 34–37.


What are the main features of a water softener vs water conditioner?

Water softeners produce sodium-rich water and require periodic salt or potassium replenishment, while water conditioners maintain mineral content and require less maintenance.

Which one should I choose: a water softener vs conditioner?

The choice depends on your water quality needs. If you want to address water hardness, a water softener is suitable. If you’re concerned about scale buildup and want to maintain mineral content, a water conditioner is preferable.

How can I determine which system is best for my home?

Consider factors like your water quality issues, space availability for installation, maintenance preferences, and budget constraints. Consulting with a water treatment professional like Rayne will also help you make an informed decision.